Flow Of Ideas - Are You Playing Enough Lands?
Players make a lot of mistakes in Magic. Maybe their technical play is a little off, and they lose a point of damage somewhere. Maybe their mental game gets shaky and their solid frame of mind encounters a tilt earthquake. However, the number one mistake players make time and time again, even at the absolute highest levels of play, is not playing enough lands.
It's absolute insanity how few lands people play, and how often players will jump at any opportunity to cut lands out of their deck. Did you add two cantrips? Time to cut a land! Open four mana Myr? Sure, fifteen lands; what's the worst that could happen? Have a sweet spell to add? Well, you can probably do without that extra land…
No! This bad habit needs to stop.
How many times have you sat in a diner after a major tournament, staring at your French fries and recounting your losses, thinking about how you'd be in Top 8 right now if only you could have drawn your third land?
I know that scenario has happened to me more times than I can count. Magic is a game of tight play and mental bluffs, but it's also a game of chance. All of those skill-related aspects play a big part of the game, but your ability to manipulate those assets to your advantage is significantly reduced when you're stuck on two lands. Even mana-flooded players can find some tactical advantage to use in their favor. But mana-screwed players, by comparison, are often stuck sitting at the whimsy of how the other guy grew—a position you never want to put yourself in.
Let me ask you a question. How many of your overall losses would you attribute to mana screw? 10%? 15%? 20%?!? The answer is probably a surprisingly significant number. Even if you “only” attribute 10% of your losses to being mana light, that's probably going to be at least two games in the Swiss rounds of a PTQ. Considering that two match losses knocks you out of contention, if you pick up those mana-deficient hands at an inopportune time, it can completely push you out of the tournament.
Now, obviously you can't always prevent mana screw. It happens to everyone. I've even seen a 43 Lands player get mana screwed while playing under the SCGLive lights, and if it happens to that guy, then it can certainly happen to you too. But at least taking precautions to try and reduce the probability of getting mana screwed can make a big difference in your matches.
The best precaution against being mana screwed? Adding lands to your deck! Let's talk about some specific issues when it comes to playing more lands.
Let's start by looking look at the other half of the equation: the dreaded mana flood.
You know the situation. You pluck land after land off the top of your library, watching on as your opponent strings together a sequence of plays that lands him firmly in the driver's seat. You were so far ahead, but then Fortuna handed you a plate of rotten apples. What's a mage to do?
Well, it's certainly not a desirable situation to be in. Lands are cards that have diminishing returns, and for most decks, the eighth land isn't nearly as important as the third. As a result, a naturally common argument against playing more lands is the danger of getting mana flooded.
However, for precisely that same reason, playing more lands is important. Hitting your third land drop is crucial. With many decks, even if you get flooded, you can still win a lot of games just by optimally playing your cards. If you keep three lands with four spells and draw five lands with two spells, maximizing the value of the spells you do have can still win you a lot of games.
On the other hand, if you get mana screwed, it's hard to have nearly as much play. Your opponent is going to out-resource and out-tempo you. Occasionally you can keep a removal-heavy hand against a beatdown deck and just hope those spells will buy you time to find you lands, but otherwise, in the majority of cases, your only out is to draw a succession of lands or have the other player run into mana problems of his own.
I'd much rather be mana flooded than mana screwed every time. Fortunately, there is one way to overcome both—but I'll get to that in a second. First, let's talk about another benefit of playing more lands.
What if you had the opportunity to just draw an extra card a few times during a tournament? You'd do that… wouldn't you?
No, don't worry; I'm not talking about running something shady. I'm just talking about playing more lands.
The number one reason people mulligan hands is because they don't have enough lands. In fact, if you take all the other reasons someone might mulligan a hand—drawing too many lands, looking for a specific card in a matchup, looking for a better plan, and so on—and add them up, then compare that number against the number of times someone has mulliganed due to a lack of lands, I'd bet there would be far more mulligans due to being land light. Being mana screwed is a Magic player's number one boogeyman, and mulligans are our main line of defense against that ghastly creature.
However, by playing more lands in the first place, it just means you can keep more hands. (And therefore “draw” a virtual card.)
Mulliganing is a pretty weak defense against mana screw. You have to put in a down payment of a card, and even then, there's no guarantee that will even fix the problem. Why not just reduce the number of mulligans you have to take in the first place?
Over the course of an event, you'll draw your extra lands in opening hands and be able to keep hands you wouldn't otherwise. Over the past few years, I have been able to keep so many more hands just by virtue of playing more lands in my decks. I started keeping track of “extra” lands in my decks by playing a different artwork or foil version, and I've found that simply playing one more land saves me around two to three mulligans a tournament. That's more than worth it to me.
Quickly Tuning New Decks
The most common issue with brand new decks (assuming they aren't just terrible in the first place) is that they don't have enough lands. You're so busy jamming in awesome spells and trying cards out that you just end up a couple lands short. Even if you look at a lot of very successful decks, their first iterations were short on lands.
As a result, I just always add more lands to decks that haven't been tested as much. There are some exceptions (more on those later), but overall, one of the worst feelings in Magic is when you register a deck for a major event and then realize after a couple of rounds that your deck is poorly constructed in some fashion. Not being able to consistently cast your spells and mulliganing into oblivion ranks pretty high up there on a list of problems I don't want to encounter at a PTQ or higher event.
Let me propose it to you like this. If you have no idea whether a deck has enough lands or not, is it better to err on the side of too many or too few lands? For most decks, the former is correct. The same principle as before applies: you're going to be in a rough spot the whole tournament if you're mana light and have mulligan troubles, where even if you draw one too many lands, at least you're going to be keeping most of your sevens. And, once again, you can often make good enough use of your resources to overcome drawing a couple extra lands. (Not to mention in this scenario, you could always just sideboard out a land too.)
Beating Mana Screw while Fighting Mana Flood
The craziest part of players not playing enough lands right now is that lands are arguably the best they've ever been.
A few years ago, I had three related land-related epiphanies.
1) The more lands you play, the more often you can cast your spells.
2) Many lands have awesome abilities.
3) Wait, I can play one of these for free every single turn?!?
These rules especially apply now. Let me put it this way. How often have you been genuinely mana flooded in Standard? There's always a Celestial Colonnade to activate, a Tectonic Edge to use, a Smoldering Spires to save for just the right time. Depending on the deck you're playing with or against, there are Swords to equip, Mana Leaks to pay for, and Lotus Cobras to turn on. I can't remember many times I haven't been happy to play lands for the first several turns. Even many recent Red decks have played upward of 26 lands.
If you had told me years ago that there would be dual-colored manlands with reasonable activation costs and sizes, I wouldn't have believed them. If I had seen Celestial Colonnade on a card creation forum, I would have probably said it was too good for a land. But here we are, with a full boat of these lands and many others.
What do these lands mean? They allow you to play extra lands without the concern of getting flooded. For example, say you have a 25-land deck. You can add two manlands, and you're far less likely to be mana-screwed while simultaneously dulling mana flood. If you draw “too many” of your extra lands, you'll have access to manlands you can use.
Although not a land, the landfall mechanic is one of the best mechanics R&D has ever produced for similar reasons. It encourages players to do something they should be doing anyway: playing a land each turn. It's all upside and changes deck construction in a positive way. Missing your landfall trigger feels awful, and so it's important you build your decks to maximize the ability.
Another card in particular that makes playing a lot of lands attractive is Preordain. Some people say that you can cut lands by adding Preordains, but that argument goes both ways. You could play fewer lands and hope to Preordain into them… or you could just play more lands and then Preordain and ship lands to the bottom to find more gas in the midgame. Playing Preordain isn't an excuse to cut out lands.
The current Standard format is one of the best Standard formats to be playing extra lands of all time. In Legacy, there are always great lands to play. There's no reason to cheat on lands. Granted, creatures and spells are also extraordinarily powerful right now, but the more lands you have, the more reliably you can cast those in the first place. Plus, since your lands double as great spells, there's even less of a reason to eschew lands in favor of spells.
Now, despite all of the land-love above, there are some exceptions worth noting. There are some times when it's right to play fewer lands, but these should be treated as exceptions, not norms.
The first instance is if you are a bad player or inexperienced with the format. No, seriously. Knowing your own strengths and gauging your ability is very important. This article was written assuming you are at a level of play where you can squeeze a decent amount of value out of your cards, and that you, most importantly, aren't going to throw cards away.
However, if you think you're going to be worse than your average opponent or are inexperienced with the format's intricacies, then it's correct to play to get a little luckier than normal. There's no shame in doing this. I've done it before in formats I'm not comfortable with, and I'll probably do it again. It's just a simple truth: if you're not going to be able to beat the best opponents in the room in a fair fight, then you have to aim to get a little luckier by drawing the perfect mix of lands and spells.
This is similar to the idea of sideboarding out lands in a bad matchup. If a matchup is really bad, then sideboarding out a couple lands is often right. If you can't afford to draw too many lands and need to maximize your spell density to win a matchup, this is one of the best ways to do it. Risky? Yes, but you have to take risks in situations like these.
A more typical situation would be with some beatdown decks. With specific kinds of beatdown decks, especially ones that don't have any good specialty land options, keeping a low land count can be important. For example, with White Weenie decks, if you ever flood out, you're going to lose so you almost have to cheat on lands. It's a risk you take by playing a deck like that.
In Limited, things are a little different. I generally think eighteen is the correct “default” land count in modern-day Magic, but depending on your deck, there's a lot of room for variation. For example, there's always the “Nick Little Gambit,” where, if you draft a really bad deck, you play fewer lands to maximize your ability to draw a spell every turn. Even if your spells are worse than your opponent's, having two spells to every one of theirs will still give you a significant advantage.
Similarly, there are some decks that are so good—for example, they have numerous incredible bombs—that I'll play upward of nineteen or twenty lands. If the only way I think I can lose is getting mana screwed, why even let that be an option?
While we're on the topic of Limited, do be careful about cutting a bunch of lands for mana artifacts and/or mana creatures in your Sealed/Draft decks though. A lot of people think it's okay to cut a land for every two other sources or, worse yet, straight across using a one-to-one ratio. This is okay sometimes, but it's very dangerous to use all of the time. (In fact, often I count my first Myr as just another spell.)
For example, if your Myr gets Arc Trailed and you don't have a follow-up land, sometimes the game will end on the spot. Is killing a Myr on the spot correct? Not usually, but that doesn't mean people won't do it, and you have to be prepared for the aftermath. There are some decks that can't afford to face this fate, and you have to build your deck with the land count in mind of it, Myr or no. I've played 17-land decks with three Myrs and 15-land decks with one. It all depends on what else you have. (And that's not even getting into the potential of double-Myr, one-land hands that would be keepable if the Myrs were just lands!)
There are other corner cases where playing fewer lands is correct, but those are some of the main ones. There are certainly times where it's right to cut down on lands. However, generally speaking, playing more lands is a good call, especially in today's era. In a world where lands fix your mana and become creatures, there's no reason to open yourself up to consistent mana screw.
If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to post in the forums, tweet at me, or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. I'd love to hear your thoughts on modern-day land counts. If you're on Magic Online tomorrow for Tuesday Night Overextended, you can also feel free to send me a message then. Otherwise, I'll talk to you next week!